An Anthem to Tyranny

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by Myles Kantor

Three positive qualities of Rod Lurie's The Contender are that it includes digs at Ted "Left Mary Jo Kopechne for Dead" Kennedy, features fantastic performances, and highlights Sam Elliott's under-appreciated dramatic gifts. (My favorite role is the earthy sage Wade Garrett in Road House, a modern classic.) Things go downhill from here.

The Contender is about a senator (Joan Allen) nominated to a vacant Vice-Presidency. Democrat Laine Hanson (a former Republican) encounters opposition in the House Judiciary Committee led by Republican Shelly Runyon (Gary Oldman). Much of the plot focuses on an alleged collegiate romp of Hanson's and the resulting sexual politics.

Runyon and his colleagues are depicted as latter-day Torquemadas who deploy prurient stratagems to torpedo Hanson. Runyon's wife describes the process as "an ideological rape." This run-of-the-mill Hollywood bias is foreshadowed on the film's poster: "Sometimes you can assassinate a leader without firing a shot."

After asking President Jackson Evans (Jeff Bridges) to withdraw her nomination, Hanson is vindicated when he demands her confirmation in a joint address to Congress, informing the body that "You have brought blood and shame under this great dome" and "There are traitors among us." In a line reminiscent of Joseph Welch's riposte to Joseph McCarthy, he points at Runyon and asks, "Have you no decency, sir?" (The phrase "sexual McCarthyism" is used earlier in the film.) Evans goes on to ascribe a historical imperative to Hanson's ascent: "There is no weapon as powerful as that of an idea whose time has come." His histrionics earn him a standing ovation, complete with triumphal music composed by Larry Groupé.

While it's certainly valid for conservatives to object to their caricature in The Contender, the most disturbing aspects of the film are what it champions. Next to the presidential reprimand of Congress, the film's high point is Hanson's closing statement to the Judiciary Committee. A gravitas-filled score attends her political credo:

"I stand for a woman's right to choose. I stand for the elimination of the death penalty. I stand for a strong and growing armed forces because we must stomp out genocide on this planet, and I believe that that is a cause worth dying for. I stand for seeing every gun taken out of every home, period. I stand for making the selling of cigarettes to our youth a federal offense. I stand for term limits and campaign reform. And, Mr. Chairman, I stand for the separation of church and state, and the reason that I stand for that is the same reason that I believe our forefathers did: It is not there to protect religion from the grasp of government, but to protect our government from the grasp of religious fanaticism. I may be an atheist, but that does not mean I do not go to church. I do go to church. The church I go to is the one that emancipated the slaves, that gave women the right to vote, that gave us every freedom that we hold dear. My church is this very chapel of democracy that we sit in together, and I do not need God to tell me what are my moral absolutes. I need my heart and my brain and this church."

There is so much repellent content in this monologue, I don't know where to begin. (I won't even get into the "chapel of democracy" metaphor that has all sorts of Hegelian unwholesomeness.) For starters, the screenwriter (Lurie) misrepresents American religious tradition. Yes, it's fashionable to pretend America has been historically godless, but this attempt at secular purification collapses on the most cursory examination. (I'm waiting for a thief to appeal a conviction on the grounds that a law against stealing has roots in the Decalogue and is therefore unconstitutional.) With regard to the church-state issue raised by the imaginary senator, Lurie's protagonist could not be more erroneous. Disestablishment in America arose not from secular groundswell but concern for religious protection from political persecution. "Simply put," observes Stephen Carter in The Culture of Disbelief: How American Law and Politics Trivialize Religious Devotion, "the metaphorical separation of church and state originated in an effort to protect religion from the state, not the state from religion." A subsequent reflection of Carter's is pertinent in light of Hanson's view:

"Maybe it [litigation against religious activity] is just another effort to ensure that intermediate institutions, such as the religions, do not get in the way of the government's will. Perhaps, in short, it is a way of ensuring that only one vision of the meaning of reality – that of the powerful group of individuals called the state – is allowed a political role. Back in Tocqueville's day, this was called tyranny. Nowadays, all too often, but quite mistakenly, it is called the separation of church and state."

In addition to her inversive constitutional philosophy, Hanson espouses a grisly combination of gun confiscation and interventionism that makes for a garrison state compounded by a strong authoritarian streak. What ultimate recourse would a populace have against this tyranny, indignant e-mails to Congressmen? As for her death penalty abolitionism, I doubt the Senator would go through the trouble of seeking a constitutional amendment; a favorable judicial decision would do just fine. Behold Senator Hanson's America: a crusader regime where articles of self-defense are verboten, the devout are further stigmatized, and the murderous find their worse fate in tax-subsidized incarceration. (To top it off, Hanson cites Thomas Jefferson as a role model in an interview with Larry King. If she's a Jeffersonian, Cornel West's a libertarian.)

Runyon and his colleagues were correct to oppose Hanson's nomination, but not because of fornication as a college freshman (a charge that turns out to be spurious). She did not belong in the Vice-Presidency or any other office because of her contempt for liberty. The valorization of that contempt is terrible and typical.

I predict Oscar nominations.

Myles Kantor lives in Boynton Beach, Florida.

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